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Friday, 10 May 2013

What a palava!

During my elcetion campaign I knocked on over 97% of the doors in the Illogan Electoral District.

As a result of talking to so many people in Illogan I have accumulated a fairly substantial list of issues that people have asked me to look into on their behalf.

One of these issues was concerning grass cutting and the resultant cuttings that are left behind after the cut. The resident that I spoke to was happy with the fact that Cornwall Council regularly cut a grassed area of open space in the neighbourhood, but was concerned about the fact that the cuttings were never taken away. They are simply left in situ to dry up and blow away or rot where they lie.

The problem with leaving grass cuttings behind is that children use the space to play on and dog owners use the space to walk their dogs. You can probably guess what happens. Some anti-social dog owners fail to clean up after their dogs so dog mess is something of a blight to the amenity. This is made worse when the grass is cut because any dog mess that is there is not collected first by the contractors but simply mown in and left behind with the cuttings.

Kids, being kids, come out to play and love the fact that there are lots of piles of grass cuttings to play with - problem is their parents aren't so happy when they come home with grass stains and dog mess over them.

Now I'm not sure what the council's policy is on grass cuttings - is it policy to leave cuttings - and the contractors are doing exactly what they have been contracted to, or have we paid the contractors through our council tax to collect the cuttings and they are failing to deliver the service they have been paid to provide?

The council's web site doesn't provide an answer to this question. However, there is a section which provides an email address for enquiries about grass cutting.

I sent an email making a simple request to find out what the council's policy on grass cuttings is to the specific email address provided on the web site.

Within an hour or so I had an email back saying that, actually, the department whose email adress was given to deal with queries about grass cutting couldn't answer my question but that my email had been passed on to the relevant department. Ok - fair enough - a bit strange that the 'grass cutting department' can't answer questions about grass cutting but at least they've been efficient and helpful enough to pass on my query.

That was three days ago. This morning I still hadn't received a substantive reply so I again emailed the people that I sent my original email to and asked if they could provide me with contact details for the department they had forwarded my mail to. I had a very quick response once again and the nice people said that they couldn't provide me with an email contact but that they had forwarded my second mail and asked the department concerned to get in touch with me and let me know what was happening.

I have now had an email from the second department saying that they are not responsible for answering the question about grass cuttings and that my mail had been forwarded to a third department to be addressed.

What a load of nonsense!

All this bureaucracy to get an answer to what should, surely, be a fairly simple question. None of the council employees are at fault - they're all just doing their jobs - but what a mess the system is.

You can see why people get fed up with the council. Why they give up on trying to get responses to problems with the services that are being delivered.

You can also see why people use FOI requests.

All too often simple requests from ordinary people get lost in the system and if difficult questions are being asked then, no doubt, the system can also be used to delay or avoid answering difficult questions.

Lot's of people point to how expensive it is to answer FOIs yet if I had sent an email to just the basic customer services department of the council, but labelled it as a FOI they would have had to get their act together with a substantive reply in a requisite time. The process would have cost no more than me going down the route of an informal question but I would have been guaranteed an answer without continual follow up being required.

When people complain about the cost of FOIs they should consider the democratic cost of not having them.

We need a joined up council service that is able to respond to customers' questions in a timely and efficient manner. It's not a problem with the people but with the system.

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